How to End a Summer Romance

We know from the outset that summer flings come with built-in expiration dates. So why is walking away from them so damn hard?

August 29, 2019 7:25 am
Go ahead, listen to the song. It won't get stuck in your head for a year or anything.
Go ahead, listen to the song. It won't get stuck in your head for a year or anything.

“Somebody moves away,” the violinist tells me matter-of-factly. “Someone’s gotta go.”

The violinist has 22 summers on me. He’s almost exactly twice my age, speaks three languages and has lived in at least as many countries. He seems like the type who might know a thing or two about summer romances, so when he asked me to dinner for the third time this week I decided to put on the dark green dress, the one that makes people yell things from their cars while I walk to the subway, and ask him how to end a summer tryst. 

He and I aren’t having one. We’re having a lackluster second date, an unsurprising sequel to our lackluster first. But my suspicion that he might have a summer fling or two under his belt proves correct. The one he tells me about over fish tacos and margaritas on 79th street had blonde hair and a name that begins with an E. She was 18 when he was 40, a music student he met while performing in one of the various foreign countries he’s told me about and I’ve forgotten. 

How did it end? She left, or maybe he did. They both had their own lives to return to. “That’s how it works,” he tells me, as if confused by the question. “Somebody leaves at the end of the summer. That’s the deal.” 

The last time I had a summer tryst, I ended it by getting really high, telling the guy I was in love with him and then crying myself to sleep in his bed. The next morning I took a train back to Connecticut to begin my senior year of college and he went back to doing whatever 37-year-old marketing directors do.  

The violinist is right. That’s how it works, that’s the deal. 

When we talk about summer romances as a culture — and we talk, sing and read about them a lot — we are talking about endings. 

Shakespeare was already comparing his lover to a summer’s day back in the 17th century, and in 1917, Edith Wharton took one of her few notable breaks from novelizing the Manhattan aristocracy to pen the tale of an idyllic summer romance turned tragedy in the Berkshires. Fast forward to today, and Nicholas Sparks, for what it’s worth, has coughed up his share of summer love stories, and Goodreads seems to suggest the topic is also a favorite among YA authors.

It’s not just the stuff of fiction, either. In the year of our Ariana and Pete 2018, Vanity Fair blessed us with a history of celebrity summer romances, each “a one-time blip of summers gone by,” and other corners of the internet hold everything from first-person listicles to so-called scientific explanations of summer love.

For our good and their own, summer romances are self-terminating entities. They’re not supposed to last, by design.

Implicit in all of these tales of summer romance, both real and fictional, is an ending. That’s why an optimistic Shakespeare ultimately decides there’s nothing particularly summery about his lover after all — summer’s lease hath all too short a date. The end of a summer romance is no accident; it’s implicit from the beginning. We like these people specifically because they are not the ones we’ll be dating when fall comes. They’re not the ones we’re going to eat oatmeal with on Wednesday mornings or get into a fight with at a friend’s wedding in 10 months. We don’t ever have to know them or love them as whole people, which is convenient, because whole people are much harder to know and love.

My question doesn’t make sense to the violinist because you’re not supposed to end summer flings. They’re supposed to end themselves. They come with built-in expiration dates — when summer ends, so does summer love. For our good and their own, summer romances are self-terminating entities. They’re not supposed to last, by design. For a summer romance to remain a summer romance, it has to end when summer does. The expiration date becomes a force of preservation, a way to keep the memory of your summer love glittering and ethereal, to shield it from the mundane realities of long-term commitment.

I’ve written about this ironic, preservative quality of romantic expiration dates before, and a married man who once had an affair with me thinks I stole the idea from him. 

“That’s what I told you,” he said when that piece was published, right around the time of our own expiration date. “Remember? I told you, ‘That’s the beauty of these things, they come with expiration dates.’”

He has even more than 22 summers on me, and has watched his share of affairs expire, so he might be right. I could have lifted that particular piece of wisdom from him.

The married man has summer trysts all year long, because marriage imbues every love affair with the same kind of impermanence that defines a summer romance. Summer or winter, eventually somebody’s gotta go when somebody else is married, and it’s not going to be the wife. The married man prefers college girls because they usually come with clearer expiration dates. They are always graduating or leaving for summer internships. He prefers them for other reasons too.

Having stamped his share of women with expiration dates, however, he can’t help but maintain a keen awareness of his own.

“Sometimes I wonder when this all ends for me,” he said to me over red wine and filets at the Ritz one night in January.

The thing the violinist hasn’t considered, the thing that I was considering on my way to meet him tonight, is that sometimes summer loves come back. We graduate and get jobs and move back to your city for them and maybe — just a little, somewhere in the back of our minds — for you, too. And who can blame us.

Emily Reynolds writes about the “digital cartography” we perform in the aftermath of heartbreak — the way we obsessively try to preserve and retrace old love affairs through texts and time stamps and Uber receipts. Sometimes our tech does this even when we don’t ask it to. Google maps remembers the places we’ve let it lead us before, unwittingly highlighting the exact locations of first dates and last kisses even when we’re just trying to find the nearest CVS. The Upper West Side is littered with these landmarks for me, and as I passed by one of them on my way to meet the violinist, I half expected to see myself waiting on the bench outside the restaurant for the object of last year’s summer romance to come strolling toward me down the sidewalk. 

For a moment I thought about texting him. I wondered if I could text him and say, “Hello, I still think of you often and hope you are well. Also, I am writing an article about how to end a summer tryst. How would you have ended ours if I hadn’t gotten high and cried myself to sleep in your bed?” But I already knew, before the violinist even had to tell me, that if I hadn’t forced last year’s summer love to say, “I think we’ll remain in each other’s lives in some way” that night, he wouldn’t have had to end it at all. I would have just left, maybe even with some grace or mystery still intact, the way summer loves are supposed to. Somebody moves away, someone’s gotta go.

I know women who’ve cried on subways and in independent bookstores and other people’s beds and on the bathroom floor of the club they got kicked out of on Labor Day weekend last year.

I’ve talked to a bunch of other women about summer romances. A month ago a friend texted me about her intern love who was going back to college in Alabama. “I love C,” she told me. “And I’ve gotten so used to having him around. I need your advice badly.”

I texted back and told her, “The thing that’s brought me the most peace when it comes to endings is to just find a way to be grateful for having had the experience while it lasted,” even though I’m not sure I’ve found a way to do that yet. 

She wrote back,”Yeah I mean we’ve talked about visiting and stuff.” 

They’re not going to visit each other, and I can’t tell if she knows this.

Other women tell me a lot about crying. I know women who have cried in bathrooms while their summer loves waited in the next room. Women who’ve cried on subways and in independent bookstores and other people’s beds and on the bathroom floor of the club they got kicked out of on Labor Day weekend last year. Summer romances don’t last by design, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting them to. 

It’s a little after 10 in the morning on Sunday and all over the city people are waking up in other people’s beds. Finding me in his, the violinist says, “You passed out like a drunk little princess.” He hesitates on the last word, and his accent — it’s a little of everything, mostly French — makes it sound like he can’t think of the English word he’s looking for, but I have a feeling it has more to do with the fact that there wasn’t anything particularly princess-like about the way I passed out last night. I grab my phone and go looking for a text I hope I won’t find. But it’s there.

“Hello, I still think of you often. Also”

On the way home I unfollow and block the recipient of that text fragment on every social-media platform, partly because I think I owe it to him to excuse myself from his life as absolutely as possible, but partly because I want to pretend that there’s still something left to preserve and protect. Blocking him feels backwards. I’m punishing the wrong person, but it’s the closest I can come to blocking myself, and somebody’s gotta go. 

People are still yelling at the green dress as I walk back from the subway, but now they’re saying things like, “Late night, huh?” It’s not the first morning this summer I’ve walked home in the dress, but it’s the first time I’ve felt chilly while doing it. I’m not moving away, not going anywhere, but it still feels like the end of something.

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